Captured: Life in an abandoned airport

Captured: Life in an abandoned airport
Michael Christopher Brown/Magnum Photos
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Wednesday, August 6, 2014 - 7:32am

On the wing of an empty airplane, a young boy is practicing his backward-bend. In the cockpit, a crowd have gathered -- taking it in turns to play captain.

From an outsider's perspective, Goma International Airport -- once a makeshift arsenal for the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo -- is probably the last place you'd expect to find a makeshift playground. To locals, such dichotomies are typical of the once conflict-ridden region.

"For me this captures the Congo experience," says Michael Christopher Brown, a photojournalist who shot the images in 2012 while on assignment for Time magazine.

"On the one hand, this is a place that is often in the news as a very horrific place, because of course, very horrific things have happened there. But there are also beautiful things that happen there," he says.

Years of war and a volcanic eruption in 2002 -- which saw much of the city and large swaths of the airport overrun with lava -- pretty much shut down any commercial activity at the site. Though Goma Airport essentially fell into disuse, the locals have made use of the leftover volcanic rocks -- from which many constructed their homes -- and the abandoned aircraft that pepper the place.

"While I was there, I saw children going through the planes, collecting parts and hacking at the engines to get the wires. My fixer, Horeb, said these materials were later sold on the street to be used in other products. A hunk of steel can be used in a stove, the wires could be used in other electronics. There, everything is recycled, in a way."

Even adults play make-believe

Outside of serving a utilitarian function, Goma Airport has acted as a kind of Fantasy Island for the locals -- inviting them to dream big even if their means were small.

Horeb recalled a friend who had always wanted to be a pilot.

"His parents were too poor and all the schools were expensive, so he could not hold onto that dream," Horeb told Brown.

When Mount Nyirangongo erupted, Horeb's friend was one of a hundred locals who rushed to move the planes before they got swallowed up by the encroaching lava. Emptied of fuel, food and passengers, the aircraft proved easy to shift. Horeb's friend jumped inside the plane to steer it while the others pushed -- briefly living out the dream he never got to see fulfilled.

"Horeb described the experience as exhilarating for his friend," recalls Brown.

'These images are unique'

Brown was in Goma when the M23 rebels captured the city from the Congolese government. Though the site was manned by rebels, he says, that never prevented the local children from playing in the debris.

"The troops would allow the kids to walk on the wings. If no planes were coming in [for military training], they would allow villagers to move across the runway with water and groceries," he recalls. They did not, however, grant him access to the site.

When the rebels cleared out of the city, there was a short period when the airport was unmanned before Congolese government forces (FARDC) moved in. Brown took his opportunity.

"Really, these images are unique, because access is so difficult," he says.

"I saw this brief window when no one was at the airport. I saw the kids running around inside and decided to try one more time before I was blocked. This time, I was successful."

Since that first visit, a wall has been erected around the airport.

"After that one afternoon, we could not get access again," he recalls. "With the wall there, I'm not sure if the kids are allowed in any more -- I can't see them." 

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